The EU Referendum: The Bare Bones

What is the EU referendum and when is it being held?

In February, 2016, the British Government announced that it was planning to honour its manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

The referendum will take place on 23rd June, 2016.

What is the referendum question?

The referendum question is: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

These two options are the only options that will appear on the ballot.

Who is eligible to vote in the referendum?

British, Irish, and Commonwealth citizens over the age of eighteen living in the UK, as well as UK nationals living abroad who have been on the electoral register at some point in the last fifteen years, are eligible to vote in the EU referendum. In a break with general election tradition, members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar will also be eligible to vote.

Non-UK EU citizens are not eligible to vote.

Who are the officially designated Leave and Remain campaign groups?

The officially designated campaign group for the leave camp is Vote Leave.

The officially designated campaign group for the remain camp is Britain Stronger in Europe.

The Electoral Commission is responsible for choosing the officially designated campaign groups.

Each group is permitted to spend up to £7,000,000 and access £600,000 of public funds. They are also allowed to send out a free ‘mailshot’ and broadcast a number of political campaign adverts on television.

Who are the prominent political backers of Remain?

David Cameron (Prime Minister, CON); George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer, CON); Theresa May (Home Secretary, CON); Jeremy Corbyn (LAB); Carwyn Jones (First Minister of Wales, LAB); Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London, LAB); Tim Farron (LIB DEM); Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland, SNP); Hywel Williams (PC).

Of the 650 members of the Westminster Parliament, 462 are backing the Remain camp.

Who are the prominent political backers of Leave?

Boris Johnson (former Mayor of London, CON); Michael Gove (Justice Minister, CON); Priti Patel (Minister of State for Employment, CON); David Davis (MP); Nigel Farage (UKIP); Douglas Carswell (UKIP); Frank Field (LAB); Dennis Skinner (LAB); Kate Hoey (LAB); Ian Paisely (DUP).

Of the 650 members of the Westminster Parliament, 188 are backing the Leave camp.

What happens if a majority of the electorate vote to remain in the EU?

The short answer is ‘not much’. Britain’s current political, legal, economic, and trading relationship with the EU will remain in-tact.

What happens if a majority of the electorate vote to leave the EU?

The British Government would be obliged to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union to notify the relevant authorities of its intention to withdraw from the EU. The UK and the EU would then have two years to negotiate a ‘withdrawal agreement’. During this two-year period, Britain would still be bound by existing EU law and required to participate in day-to-day EU business.

Once the negotiation period is over, EU Treaties will cease to apply to the UK and the negotiated settlement, whatever that might be, will come into effect. The same will happen if both sides fail to reach an agreement within two years, although there is scope to extend the negotiation period.

For any settlement to be valid, it must be ratified by the British Government, the European Commission (acting on behalf of the Council of Ministers and individual member states), and the European Parliament.

What might a withdrawal settlement look like?

According to the Centre for European Reform (CER), there are seven alternatives to Britain’s current relationship with the EU.

The first is commonly referred to as ‘half-membership’. Under this proposal, Britain would retain access to—and voting rights in—the single market but not be bound by other EU policies and laws. Most commentators, academics, and policymakers believe that this option would be almost impossible to negotiate.

Second, Britain could adopt the so-called ‘Norwegian option’ and apply to join the European Economic Area (EEA). Under this scenario, Britain would be exempted from the EU’s common fisheries and agricultural policies, but in general, it’s economic relationship with the EU would remain much the same. As Jean-Claude Piris points out, Britain would “pay nearly as much into the [EU] budget as it does today, free movement of labour would continue, and the UK would have to apply the single market’s rules and regulations without having a vote on them.” Given the fact that immigration and the scale of Britain’s economic contribution to the EU have dominated the referendum debate, it seems doubtful that the ‘Norwegian option’—which is essentially EU-lite—would gain much traction with a domestic audience or Eurosceptic Conservative ministers.

Third, Britain could negotiate a withdrawal treaty with the EU, spurning EEA membership and instead attempting to negotiate case-by-case access to the single market. In practise, this would end up being very similar to the Norwegian option, with the UK’s level of access to the single market being determined by the level of EU regulations and laws it was willing to adopt, all while not having a direct say in the EU policymaking process. Again, this may prove to be unpalatable in Whitehall and in the country at large since it would still require Britain to contribute to the EU budget and accept the free movement of people.

Fourth, Britain could pursue the ‘Swiss option’, negotiating several bi-lateral treaties with the EU and participating in the single market for goods, but not services. This is the ideal scenario for traditional conservatives, not least because it would exempt Britain from having to adhere to the principle of free movement of people. However, there is little reason to believe that Brussels would be amenable to such a settlement. EU leaders and bureaucrats are generally unhappy with their relationship with Switzerland, viewing it as time consuming and asymmetrical.  It is doubtful that they would extend such a state of affairs to cover another European state.

Fifth, Britain could seek to negotiate a settlement akin to the ‘Turkish option’, joining the EU’s custom union. In exchange for regulatory harmonisation, the UK would gain access to the single market in goods and its exports to the EU would be exempt from the tariff regime. If Britain went down this route, it would have to negotiate its own free trade agreements with other countries and trading blocks. On balance, it’s fair to say that this option has the potential to gain traction in the UK and the capitals of European member states.

Sixth, Britain could negotiate a novel free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. This would lower or remove all tariffs on British exports to the EU (and vice-versa), but whether it would permit access to the single market remains to be seen. Again, this would require some form of regulatory harmonisation. The CER deems the negotiation of a FTA to be the course of action which would be most acceptable to both sides.

Seventh, Britain could simply revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and standards. This would effectively mean that Britain would be subject to the EU’s common external tariff (and vice-versa). Unless the UK and EU suffer a significant breakdown in relations, it is unlikely that the WTO scenario will come to pass.